One has only to stand amid the gilded splendor of Paris’s Palais Garnier, with its red velvet chairs and sculpted balconies, its chandelier lights and shimmering reflections, to imagine the affluent and unabashedly exhibitionist patrons for whom this 19th-century landmark was intended: the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire. The flamboyant style of Emperor Napoleon III suited this newly rich public that—notwithstanding the venue’s main attraction, French lyric opera in its ascendant glory—came to see and be seen.

Here were the oversize mirrors to check one’s powder and posture, the marble staircase to make a grand entrance, and everywhere classical portraits of angels, muses, Gods, and artists, including Charles Garnier himself, as a recumbent Hermes overseeing the elegantly appointed masses. For it was Garnier, an accomplished young architect originally from the slums of Paris, who understood the taste of the times, and to general surprise beat out the stodgier competition to win one of the most coveted commissions in Haussmann’s renovated capital.

The third iteration of Paris opera houses when it opened in January 1875, Palais Garnier was also a fort, accommodating the security-obsessed emperor with a secret carriage entrance, and for subscribers (abonnés), an entry separate from everyday ticket holders. While not every abonné attended every allotted performance, the prestigious subscriptions served as a form of currency, as choice seats were exchanged for favors such as bank loans or political leverage among members of this powerful strata of Parisian society.

Though not the least interested in networking, nor flaunting his wealth as a legitimate son of the bourgeoisie (his father was a successful banker), Edgar Degas was, on and off, an abonné from the age of 20. Already pursuing a career in art rather than the predictable path into finance, Degas initially experienced the opera not at Garnier but at its precursor, known simply as Salle Rue Le Peletier, which was mysteriously destroyed by fire in 1873.

Less ornate than Garnier, but with excellent acoustics and infrastructure, Rue Le Peletier would remain the reference point for Degas throughout his life of depicting everything opera. Even as he studied the dancers, musicians, and the beau monde of Garnier, gaining access to the rehearsal rooms and the backstage of the labyrinthine building, he would transpose his subjects to Rue Le Peletier. This sentimental restaging was facilitated by the fact that, unlike his contemporary Impressionists, who set up their easels in situ, Degas principally worked in his studio nearby in the Ninth Arrondissement. Moreover, despite his status as a man of means and eventual celebrity as a successful artist, he abhorred the ostentation of Garnier, found its glitteriness vulgar, and deliberately eschewed representing the place and all it symbolized.

But such was his dedication that he went anyway. “Being away from the opera,” whether for travel or during wartime when the stage was dark, “is a real source of suffering,” Degas wrote after one such interlude—thus amassing a prodigious oeuvre around a central theme.

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Edgar Degas, Virginie Being Admired While the Marquis Cavalcanti Looks On, ca. 1880/1883, monotype touched with pastel on wove paper plate.

“Degas at the Opéra,” organized by the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opéra, explores this profound connection. Over 200 works illustrate Degas’s experimentation with a variety of media, from pastel to photography, and formats, from the decorative fans female spectators donned as part of their sartorial ensemble to wax sculpture with real accessories. Through Degas’s vision, the opera is revealed as a many-layered world—a reflection of a still deeply hierarchical society a century after the Revolution, and a showcase for the transcendent beauty of art, depending on which side of the curtain you were looking.

From the beginning, when it transitioned from the intimacy of the royal court to a public arena, French opera was slated to be “a total work of art,” incorporating song, dance, and special effects. By the time Degas became a regular, romantic ballet was an integral part of the genre. This union reached its apex in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1831 Robert Le Diable, with its famous choreographed segment, “The Nun’s Bacchanal,” featuring a corps of dancers in flowing white habit. Degas painted several versions of this scene as a horizontally split composition, with the ruddy, mustached musicians of the orchestra below the stage, and a ghostlike blur of balletic nuns agitating among the ersatz arcades of a moon-lit cloister, above. Though Degas’s signature realism suggests fact, the image is part fiction: the musicians were mostly friends whose features he knew from memory, such as the collector Albert Hecht, shown peering through a pair of opera glasses.

In the similarly split-screen L’Orchestre de l’Opéra (1870), commissioned by the composer and bassoonist Désiré Dihau, he is portrayed playing his instrument surrounded by black-tie figures also identifiable from the artist’s social circle, including composer Emmanuel Chabrier, whose head is posed, elf-like, on the beveled scrim of the lower loge. Meanwhile, on stage, the truncated bodies of pastel-tufted ballet dancers stir. For all the detail of the dark men of the orchestra with their expressions and their musical instruments, it’s the spray of light and shimmering color that draws one’s eye up, to the slice of movement literally over their heads.

Indeed, while Degas was a skilled portraitist, landscapist (though the exercise bored him), and even architectural draftsman, as evidenced in the detail of a frieze from some composite opera house décor (La Loge, 1880), it was the art of movement that captivated him, and that agent of movement—the dancer—that was his preferred protagonist. From the petit rats or “little mice” as the youngest apprentices were called, aged 7 or 8 and trying out for a profession that for many, would lift them from poverty, to the prima ballerina who would become the toast of Paris, Degas immersed himself in the dancers’ universe.

Several tableaux titled The Dance Class (1873–76) offer examples of Degas’s unorthodox use of perspective, for while it’s the dancers in their finery and the elder ballet master with his cane that animate the scene, it’s the wooden floor that occupies the breadth of the canvas, emphasizing that expanse where, after all, the hard work of dancing takes place. A watering can occupies one corner as the implement used to keep the dancers from slipping. Elsewhere, point slippers are piled on a bench by a group of students relaxing, not altogether gracefully, after rehearsal.

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, ca. 1873, oil on canvas.

That not everything—certainly not every gesture behind the scenes—was beautiful, was for Degas accurate reporting, for “he chose to paint (dancers) as they were, which is to say as members of an entertainment proletariat who did not pretend to be refined young princesses from the elegant parts of Paris inhabited by their public,” wrote one biographer. Nor did he feel obliged to make them pretty. The fact that Degas’s dancers often shared the coarse features, masked by garish makeup, of his working-class laundresses, bar maids and bathers, offended many sensibilities. 

It provoked outright “scandal and hilarity,” according to Orsay curator Marine Kiesel, when Degas exhibited at the Impressionist Salon of 1881 his prize statuette, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Her name was Marie van Goethem, and for authenticity Degas introduced into the wax effigy of this petit rat real hair tied with a ribbon, a tulle skirt and satin bustier, and slippers on feet perfectly placed in fourth position. The virulent critical reaction was such that Degas never showed Little Dancer again. The work remained in his studio until his death, when heirs authorized the reproduction of a limited series of bronze copies that became, ironically, among the more sought after, iconic masterpieces of the Impressionist era.

Degas turned to sculpture, letting “his hands be his eyes,” as his sight failed, which started as early as his 40s. The handicap also accounted for his brasher palette and expressionistic brushstroke—as seen in the exhibit’s final painting, Danseuse Aux Bouquets (1895–1900). Here a ballerina takes her bow among bouquets tossed by an adulating audience beyond the frame. We want her to be attractive, but she is not, her mask-like face barely more delineated than the red blots suggesting roses. And orange and purple hues evoke a more vaudeville than balletic moment. But for the aging Degas, this was likely an endearing homage to his favorite subject.

Little is known of Degas’s romantic life, though his friendships with such esteemed lady colleagues as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt are well-documented. The world of opera, which the artist called his “laboratory,” was certainly his greatest muse. That Degas said toward the end, “I left my heart in a pink satin slipper,” suggests perhaps that world availed him of something more.

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